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Legendary ballerina brings gravitas to Nevada Ballet Theatre's avant-garde moves

A legend of dance has been living right under our noses for more than a year. Of course, a secret like that couldn't last. Now this legend hopes to help Nevada Ballet Theatre leap to new heights well into 2011.

Cynthia Gregory joined Nevada Ballet Theatre in September as artistic advisor and coach. She originally moved here in 2009 at the urging of friends and family - and to be closer to her hometown of Los Angeles. But it wasn't long before she was adopted by another family - an artistic one. The Nevada Ballet Theatre's Cynthia Gregory Center for Coaching has been open for business since October.

"From the point of view of classical ballet in America, (Gregory) was one of the most significant American prima ballerinas," says Hanna Rubin, editor of Pointe, a trade magazine for dancers. "She was a legend in her own time when she was dancing."

Having appeared on her first dance magazine cover at the age of 7, Gregory joined the San Francisco Ballet at 15. At 21, she made her American Ballet Theatre debut in New York as the dual character of Odile-Odette in "Swan Lake." During her 26 years with the American Ballet Theatre, Gregory danced in more than 80 ballets. She's worked with a who's-who of choreographers and directors - George Balanchine, Agnes de Mille, Glen Tetley, Birgit Cullberg - and danced with as many famous male leads.

In joining the staff, Gregory heightens the company's rising profile, which received a boost when James Canfield became artistic director in January 2009. It will be interesting to see how this titan of classical dance complements a company evolving rapidly under Canfield, its tattoo-sleeved artistic director known for progressive works that mash up contemporary and classical.

"I idolized her. She was one of the greatest - if not the greatest American ballerina," Canfield says of Gregory. "I watched her do 'Swan Lake.' I watched her do all the classics, and she was phenomenal. To be able to work in the same capacity with her, as colleagues, how do you measure that?"

As coach, Gregory is tasked with coaxing out of dancers the expressions that transform mere movement into art - to take dancers beyond skill and into the nebulous realm of spirit and emotion. More than mere training, coaching involves fine-tuning particular dancers for specific roles. And not just physically.

"To me, dancing was all about connecting with the audience," Gregory says of her approach. "I wasn't playing to them. I wanted them to feel what I was feeling. When you do the classics right, you can do that. What I'm worried about is that dance has become very technical and athletic, which is wonderful, but the personality is being lost."

In the eyes of Nevada Ballet Theatre co-founder Nancy Houssels, Gregory will do nothing less than help nurture the next wave of dance in the Las Vegas Valley.

"As a person with such a wealth of knowledge in performing and performing certain roles, as a coach, she can really put that on our dancers and share that with them," she says. "That's how the real art is passed on. These great ballerinas work with new people and budding ballerinas. Sharing their knowledge with them is invaluable. It gives a depth that, otherwise, a dancer wouldn't have the chance to explore."

For Gregory, teaching what you know is much more than a job. It's an obligation to future generations of dance. "I moved into this community, and dance has always been my life, so I'm naturally drawn to the dance world here," Gregory says. "I had such an amazing career with the people I worked with and all the different things that I've done ... I'm happy, and it's necessary to pass that on."

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